“Ow!” I cried, “what was that for?!”
“So you will remember,” my father said sternly.
And I did.
Now, if you were to ask me. If you were to request that I look back down the years. Through the jaded lens of the person that I am now, not the fresh and craze free lens of the green boy that I was then. If you were to say to me, did your parents ever hit you? I would give you a categorical no, and I would mean it with all my heart.
You see, that tap he gave me did not hurt. Quite the opposite. My Dad loved me and I was never, ever in doubt of that. When his hand connected with me, I was initially startled and maybe things could have gone awry at that point, but I was connected with my Dad sufficiently to question my initial wave of feelings. These feelings included a notion of hurt and there was worse crowding around that off-kilter notion, betrayal amongst them and an irrational seed of hatred to boot. But you see, I have a heart and I am loved and I love. I also have a brain and I was encouraged to use that brain. And so I remembered myself and what counted. And in that moment what counted was that my Dad loved me in a way no other man ever will. He was my sword and my shield and so much more. I embraced that love and so I thought things through. I had to. There was no other way. Here was a man who was devoting his precious time and energy to my betterment. There was meaning here. My father was a man of reason and he did things for a reason.
I remember the oath and I remember it well, but I will not bore you with it. Besides, it is one of my most treasured possessions and I look forward to the day that I will pass it down to my sons. They are young, but already they are couched in the values that the oath enshrines. Those values are underwritten by love and truth and amongst those values are courage, discipline, wisdom and justice.
My father taught me not to give myself over to fear. Living by our values and the oath that is as old as the hills, I gradually understood that fear is the father of both anger and hatred. Hatred is not the opposite of love, how could it be? Hatred is not fit to be compared to love. Instead it is the poisonous preserve of the unthinking coward.
I prided myself in not being the most difficult of children, but it is only now, as a parent that I understand that all children are difficult, or that in fulfilling the true role of parent, there is much difficulty on that path.
On one occasion, as we walked together side by side, my father spoke to me. He did this often. He was the foremost of my teachers and it shames me that I was not always listening. I thought I was, but more of his imparted wisdom was lost than I ever retained.
“I am not your friend,” he said to me on this fine day. The sun was shining and it felt pleasant as it caressed my face. His words broke my reverie and my hackles rose at this and stayed at attention as I attended to his words on a base and limited level.
We all do that. We have basic filters so that we are not overwhelmed by everything that assails our senses. To stay with the filter and go no further is to fail to live. Truly we live by relating to those around us. That’s the truth of it and you do this because you love. This is also respect, and I respected my father to a level that made me honour him.
“You are more than my friend,” I responded as I began to try his words on for size.
“Explain,” he said as we continued to walk. We were now approaching woodland and I could see shafts of the sun’s light penetrating the leaf heavy branches and illuminating the greenery below. There has always been something magical about the quality of light in woodland when the sun deigns to paint it this way.
I pushed out my breath in order to draw more air in. Using the bellows to aid the best possible functioning of my machinery. It sounded like a sigh, but my father did not react to it. I think he understood and he appreciated the pause. Only fools rush in.
“Friends stand shoulder to shoulder and help each other along,” I began, “you stand ahead of me and you see more than I do. You are my guiding light. We are not equals and we never will be. If I ever thought that way, or worse still, thought I was better than you, then that would be to my utter detriment.”
My father nodded, “good.”
We shared a moment as we walked then. I knew he was pleased that I understood what he was to me and in knowing that, I knew myself well enough. It is a parent’s deepest wish that their child finds their place in the world. We prepare them and ready them for the harsh realities of that cruel world and yet we know they can never be fully prepared. They can never be ready. At some point, they will jump into the icy waters and we will bear witness to their bodies going into shock and their heads going under the water. This is their moment and it is for them to remember the lessons they have been taught and in so doing remember themselves. Then they will swim and they will swim against the tide that is life. Life is struggle. Life is endless toil. The reward is in the hard work it takes to prevail against the tide. That is why my father instilled in me those vital values and taught me how to be a man.
Upon the threshold of the woods, my father stopped and he smiled down at me. I recall that smile as well as I do my oath. His smile was as radiant as the sun and it filled me with a warmth that was filled with meaning. As my father beamed at me, I felt his love and I knew that he was proud of me, better still I sensed his belief in my potential to make something of my life. That belief was my mandate to live a good life and to do it well.
“I love you son,” he said, “I loved you from the moment I saw you. You changed my life from the moment you came into the world. I held you in the palm of my hand. Imagine that! You. In my hand. And as I looked down into your eyes I realised that I held your entire life in that hand of mine. That is the biggest responsibility of all and the best thing you can do in this life. I was scared. I could feel it. So many questions, one of which was what have I done!?” he chuckled at this and ruffled my hair, “but what tempered and then overwhelmed that fear and overwhelmed me was the force of love that came forth. I’ve never felt anything like it before or since. That love armed me and equipped me for the challenges ahead. I had to be worthy of that love and I had to be worthy of you. So no, I am not your friend, I have to be more than that. I will always love you, but know this,” he looked stern now, the smile had gone, “I do not need to like you. That is not something you are entitled to. You earn that and you keep earning that throughout your life. You have to work hard and earn your valid place in this world and you must always remember that it can all be taken from you in a thrice. Just make sure that you are not undone by your own hand. And when the day comes when you are thrown to the ground, remember my face and remember it well, then you get back up on your feet and you keep going. One foot in front of the other is all it takes. You’re capable of more, but sometimes you have to remind yourself with the simplest of acts. One foot in front of the other, you hear?”
“I said, do you hear?” he did not raise his voice, but the intonation was hard and very clear.
“Yes father,” I said, “I hear you well.”
“Good,” he said.
Then he turned back to the path and just as I thought he was about to recommence walking, he looked up at the woodland canopy and took a deep breath, “and remember to look up, son. Look up and take it all in. After all, that’s where you’re supposed to be headed. Always onwards and always upwards.”
“Yes Dad!” I said this cheerfully because I had followed his lead and I could be nothing other than cheerful with my head looking up into those backlit leaves. There is something simple and exhilarating about making the effort to look up. I still don’t do it enough. Too many distractions in the world about me.
As we walked into the woods, I could not help but ask my father a question that was nagging away at me…
“But you do like me, don’t you Dad?”
The old bugger never answered that one!